16th International Symposium on School Life and History Museums and Collections – A reflection

I was delighted to be involved with the planning and delivery of this Symposium.  It is the first time it has been held outside Europe.  The program ran from Wed 25th – Sat 28th March on site at Sovereign Hill.  During most of Thursday I was teaching a visiting school group for Day 2 of their 2 day 1850s school immersion experience.

On Thursday afternoon I presented my paper In their shoes: children comparing their experiences to those before themThis paper was a discussion about our costume school program and how, through personally experiencing a recreation of history, are able to develop an appreciation on the context in which historical events occurred.  I suggest that we create disbelief in the children which leads to cognitive dissonance.  To resolve this dissonance and create resonance they need simply to develop the understanding that people believed and behaved differently in the past.

My Prezi is available online here.

I was sandwiched between my colleagues Peter Hoban and Marion Littlejohn who spoke on the Sovereign Hill Education Program – a workshop based program for visiting schools (usually 1 hour long) where I worked before moving to the costumed schools at the start of 2014. After me was Catherine Howard from Eltham College who spoke on their unique drama-based history program for Year 3 and 4 students: the History Centre.

Eltham College’s program is very exciting.  The children become emotionally involved in different stories they are enacting.  One particular program is their study of the gold rush, which concludes with them taking on the role of Chinese Miners where they come to Sovereign Hill and reenact the work from robe where staff (including me) hurl abuse and cabbage leaves at the children to recreate the attitudes and hostility of the town towards the Chinese immigrants.  Catherine talked about how it was such a powerful experience for the children.

On Friday morning we heard about some fantastic overseas projects.  Anne Katrine Gjerløff from the University of Aarhus (Copenhagen) spoke about the major project she worked on Skole 200 – celebrating 200 years of public schooling in Denmark.  The project was centred around a collection of historical research outlining the history of education in Denmark.  The celebrations, activities, learning resources, exhibitions etc were often large-scale and nation wide.  The organisers used the universal relevance of school (everyone went to school!) to generate interest and reflection.  The was a focus on concrete objects and shared stories.  Crown Princess Mary acted as patron to the project which helped to generate media interest and coverage.  All in all it was a very exciting project that seem to be very successful at bringing people together across all generations and all parts of the country.

Annemarie Augschöll Blasbichler from the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (South Tyrol, Italy) spoke on her paper Living and Learning in our grandparents’ school – A project where children worked as young researchers to learn about the history of schooling.  Some points Annemarie mentioned that were particularly interesting was the importance of using authentic materials and sources – showing children the proper tools and methods used in research.  That the young researchers, as they are school students, have a level of expertise and prior knowledge in the area and the historical nature of the research gives them a connection to their families (eg. grandparents).  These connections provide them with the motivation for a more in-depth educational experience.   The children utilise the University’s Documentation and Research Centre during the project.

Annemarie particularly mentioned a pivotal stage in the learning process where students are generating research topics and themes and they come to realise the limits of their own experience and knowledge – that it is not enough.  This step is essential in the learning process.  As Annemarie said the staff support students as they go through the “process of realisation that their own familiarity with the topic is nearly useless trying to understand the life and actions of pupils, teachers and parents during their grandparents’ times.”  As children delved into the documentation and biographies they were able to understand the limitations of generalisations as well.  These aspects resonated with me as being very advanced components of historical research for children and the project appears to develop complex skills in the children.

We then heard from Horst Massman who spoke about an exhibition at the School Museum Bremen (Germany) that looked at Post-war education 1945-1960.  A complementary project to the exhibitions was local students researching memories concerning the post-war period and the time of reconstruction in the 1950s.  There were 30 classes from 20 difference schools.  Most importantly, as with Annemarie’s project, the children where supported by professionals: 7 researchers and 3 curators.  The children involved collected memories, objects, photographs and documents.  It was an interesting presentation and an important reminder that 20th century history still feels very ‘old’ to contemporary students.

In the afternoon we heard from Rosalie Triolo from Monash University who spoke on the educational resource she developed: Schooling, Service and the Great War (Available online). There is both a primary and a secondary resource for Australian Teachers that looks at WW1 from a school perspective.  Rosalie talked about some of the content and it was very interested to see how schools were affected by the war: serving teachers and students, propaganda sent to schools, grief in the school community etc.

A paper by Antonis Hourdakis and Sofia Trouli (University of Crete) was read by our Interpretation Manager Barry Kay.  It discussed the history of school gardens and how research into historical pedagogical activities has proven relevant to modern schools.  That schools have been able to learn from best-practises of the past to increase the humanist and biological content in modern schools.

I was disappointed to miss some of the other presenters, but the papers I saw were most interesting.  The conference had smaller numbers that previous years it has been held in Europe – it is a very long way for the regular attendees to travel.  But we did have some very interested Australian participants from School History museums (a large contingency from South Australia)  and also some school archivists.  It made for a diverse and interesting group of people and a most enjoyable conference.

Sound of the key points I took from the conference were:

Relatabilty – Working in the area of engaging children in the history of education, our greatest strength is in the relevance of school to the lives of our students.  As current students they come from a place of background knowledge and interest – we need to continually harness that.

Direct Comparison – As school us an aspect of life that continues in modern day, it allows for children to make a direct comparison between school now and then.  This can allow them to see the differences and similarities more easily.

Supporting teachers to use their own resources – Some schools are not utilising their own local history, so as experts in our field we can look at developing resources to assist schools to use their own history to engage their students and contextualise the period of history they may be learning about.

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